Training tips, Nosework tips and more. I've transferred my blog to sonjasdogtraining.blogspot.com
Before anyone gets too excited at the thought of a hot toddy by the fireplace on a cold winter night, that's not the kind of cocktail I am writing about. Sorry to disappoint. This article is about odor cocktails.
When training detector dogs, some people train one odor at a time. For example, a narcotics dog would first be trained on marijuana (at least in states where marijuana is still illegal.) Once the dog shows firm odor recognition and response on marijuana, other narcotics odors (cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, MDMA, PCP) would be added one at a time to the dog's "library" of target odors. The odors are added by either pairing each additional odor with the prior odor, pairing each odor individually with the reward, or rewarding the dog when it shows interest in the newer/novel odor thus adding it to the dog's "library" of target odors.
Another method is to put all of the desired odors to be trained together into a "cocktail." In the case of UKC Nosework, this means the dog is imprinted on all five odors (birch, anise, clove, myrrh, vetiver) at the same time. The rationale being that a dog processes and catalogs each of the odors individually even when they are presented together.
The best way to describe this capability is with the "stew" analogy. When a human walks into a kitchen with stew on the stove, we usually identify the odor as just "stew" or maybe "beef stew." When a dog walks (or runs as the case may be) into the same kitchen, he logs into his brain each and every individual ingredient in the stew: beef, carrots, pepper, salt, celery, bay leaves, and so on. By imprinting the dog using a "cocktail" the dog is presented with the full library of odors he will be asked to detect.
Once the dog has odor recognition of the "cocktail," each of the odors can be separated out and worked one at a time. Initially, when separating out the odors, the dog will show change of behavior and odor recognition but may not know to generalize or accept only the single odor as his target odor. Therefore, it is recommended to assist and reward the dog when he first shows odor recognition at the single odor. Once rewarded, the dog will quickly learn that any single odor or combination of odors from the original "cocktail" is his target odor.
Because so many people participating in Nosework train obedience and other disciplines using operant conditioning and shaping, their dogs have learned to offer behaviors to gain rewards. These dogs are often times more likely to offer trained indications at novel odors if initially trained one odor at a time rather than imprinting all of the odors together in a cocktail.
Training with a "cocktail" provides the complete odor "library" to the dog right away, leaving no ambiguity re target odor. It is a very efficient way to train multiple odors and is less likely to produce a dog that responds with false indications to novel odors. So, happy sniffing and bottoms up!
One of the best things about judging a Nosework trial or funmatch is the opportunity to watch a whole bunch of dogs and their handlers working the same problem back to back. Aside from observing and learning how the scent conditions change over time with the angle of the sun, wind, and temperature changes, there is the chance to see how handlers influence their dogs either by helping or unintentionally hindering them.
During a recent funmatch here in Utah, I judged the vehicle element. As the day progressed, with the sun hitting the front of the SUV and a light breeze pushing across and into the grill, the odor lofted up the black bumper guard pooling at the edge of the hood and also along the bottom, pooling on the opposite bumper rail (see image below.)
Because this was a funmatch with lots of inexperienced and beginner teams, the fail rate on this element was quite high. What was expected to be a straight forward hide, became quite tricky as the sun came out warming the black bumper guard causing the odor to travel upward to the hood and the breeze picked up pushing the odor across to pool on the opposite bumper guard. Generally, the dogs showed good changes of behavior in odor and most were able to locate the hide but many handlers called "alert" on the fringe pools either to the left of the hide or up above at the hood. What stood out most to me, however, was the effect of unintentional handler pressure on the dogs. In nearly all of the "fail" runs, it went something like this: dog sniffs along bumper, dog shows good change of behavior, seeing interest the handler crowds in and stands over the dog (unknowingly directly opposite the hide location,) dog continues to work through the odor pool to source but is now crowded/blocked/or experiencing what I like to call a "squeeze effect," handler adds additional pressure by repeatedly saying "find it" "show me" "where is it" while reaching toward their treat bag. Inevitably, the dog gives eye contact to the handler with every command while also squeezing quickly through the tight space between the hide location and the handler. Ultimately, the dogs in this situation either extinguished, frustrated out, or went to the fringed odor pools where they were not so crowded by their handlers. In many ways, this is to be expected. So many of the dogs participating in Nosework compete in other disciplines such as Agility, Obedience, and Herding where focus on their handler's movements and body position is desired and trained.
Ideally, when working detection however, dogs learn to work independently and without being so sensitive to their handlers. In essence, teaching the dogs to prioritize odor while desensitizing them to their handler's movements. That said, Nosework and the professional discipline of K9 Detection is a team effort. It is the handler's job to get the dog into a productive area of odor and then the dog's job to work all the way to source.
Allowing dogs to work fun, high energy, motivational searches off leash can build their confidence, independent hunt, and indication without being subjected to handler cues as they are learning. It also allows the handlers to observe their dogs natural search pace, search style, and changes of behavior when in productive odor and as they work all the way to source. At some point, however, as the search areas get larger and more complex, the handler needs to be involved to ensure the dog is getting into all the nooks and crannies of a search area. It may not seem like it, but even as a dog is zipping around off leash in a seemingly erratic pattern, the dog is most often feeding off of their handler's body position, hand position, posture, and direction of travel. When we then attach a leash, the dog's sensitivity and response to their handler's movements and position often magnifies.
So, when working our dogs on leash we need to learn to guide while following, support while staying out of the way, direct without putting pressure, and fade away as the dog works to and indicates source odor. This sounds simple enough but, depending on the sensitivity of the dog, can be a delicate balancing act. As handlers this means we need to be aware of not only our presentation and unintended cueing behaviors when we see our dogs in odor, but also our proximity to them. If we lock up every time the dog shows change of behavior, our behavior becomes part of the dog's indication sequence. The direction our bodies face can either push the dog back or encourage him to follow or move forward. If we turn away from them and march off when they get into odor, the dog will likely pull off. When we lock in place when the dog is working in a pool but not finding source, he will often get stuck there. Simply moving along can be enough to get the dog "unstuck" and searching again. If we choke up on the leash, we will likely illicit an opposition reflex and induce or crush an indication. If we hover over the dog and badger, he will likely focus on us rather than the hunt and odor, offer behaviors, or shut down. If we are too close to the dog when he starts to bracket in an odor cone, we make it difficult for him to change directions and work his way to source. By having awareness of how our behavior, movement, and body position influences our dogs, we can minimize unintentional cueing thus building a more secure and independent response to odor.
Ultimately, on leash detection work can be a dance in which we flow with our dogs, working in concert and rhythm with them to cover a search area thoroughly and completely. It is a skill worth learning.
On June 25, 2016, I had the pleasure of judging a Non Licensed UKC Nosework Match in Taylorsville, Utah. The match was the last step necessary before becoming a licensed UKC Nosework Club. The match, the second hosted by the newly-formed Utah Nosework Club, had three elements: Containers, Vehicles, and Exterior searches. While judging the Exterior element, I made a mental list of observations, feedback, and training tips for sharing to help people move forward with their Nosework training. So, here it goes:
Attitude: What became obvious from the start was everyone’s love and affection for their dogs. It was so refreshing to see the encouraging pats and kisses given to the dogs both before entering and after exiting the search area even when the result was an NQ. This positive attitude carried over from competitor to competitor in the form of cooperation, flexibility, and a unity of purpose to have fun and share in a great activity with and for their dogs.
Inclusion: The breeds at the trial ranged from French Bulldog to English Mastiff and everything in between. I know there was at least one dog that was under one-year-old up to a 12-year-old Weimaraner that rocked the course with the fastest time of the day. Each team worked with their own style and at their own pace. Many of the handlers were first time dog sport competitors or were folks competing with dogs that were too sensitive or reactive to participate successfully in other dog sports. What all the dogs shared, however, was love for their people and a new found confidence in themselves.
The area: The exterior area was marked off with folding gates. A large rock monument dominated the center of the area and a few folding chairs, a small cooler, and a scooter were scattered around. Despite a relatively steady, light breeze, the large rock monument in the center caused some swirling of the odor and also presented a visual and physical obstacle for people to work around. In addition, a canopy of trees over the area resulted in sections of sun and shade, impacting odor behavior with lofting odor in the sun.
Pattern: When working the area, most handlers chose to follow their dogs without any sort of pattern or plan. In this particular search area, the dogs generally came straight into the area along the right edge and turned left when they got to the end barrier. Some of the dogs that were allowed to free search on a scan quickly got to source odor. Most, however, did not find odor during their initial scan. Several teams then found themselves searching the same area over and over again while missing other areas altogether. After completing the initial scan of the area, it can be more effective and efficient to start a patterned search around the perimeter, allowing the dog to pull into the center when/if they hit odor. My preference is to move in a clockwise pattern around the outside perimeter of the search area with the dog on my left. When there is a large obstacle in the middle of an area, I then work the dog around the center obstacle in a counter clockwise direction while still keeping the dog on my left. If the dog does not show any odor change of behavior (COB), I reverse direction affording the dog the opportunity of a different approach to the odor. By working a pattern, the handler can keep track of where the dog has searched, be certain of full coverage of an area, be certain they are not blocking the dog’s access to odor, and be better able to work as a fluid team with the dog. No matter what element you are training (interior, vehicle, exterior, or container,) it is the handler’s job to get their dog’s nose into a productive area of odor and then the dog’s job to work into odor and indicate as closely to source as possible. One of the best ways to train a pattern is using hide placement during training. For example, for a vehicle search, the systematic training progression of hide placements would be:
Help or hinder: The sport of Nosework requires essentially only three things: hunt, odor recognition, and odor response. For some dogs, the intrinsic value of the hunt is natural and motivating. For many others, however, the dog needs to first gain confidence and enthusiasm for the hunt as they build on the game and begin to understand that odor means reward. One of the toughest things for new teams is knowing when to support the dog versus when to back off. It is a delicate balance. Try to think of it this way. If you are sitting and someone keeps telling you to “sit” “sit” “sit”, wouldn’t you likely start to think you should be doing something other than what you are doing or perhaps sit somewhere else? So, when working Nosework, if a handler repeatedly tells his/her dog to “search” “search” “search” when the dog is already actively searching, the repeated commands will serve only to confuse the dog and take the dog’s attention away from his task.
Some of the best “rules” I can share regarding the above are as follows:
Accuracy vs. speed: Titling in Nosework requires that the dog is accurate and can source odor within a reasonable amount of time. “Winning” a competition, however, requires that a dog is accurate, fast, and without faults. Handlers who wish to become very competitive in the sport of Nosework are often faced with the dilemma of perhaps jumping the gun calling an indication early and incorrectly versus taking the time to be certain that their dog has correctly sourced odor. For novice dog teams, my suggestion is to focus on accuracy. In the words of Wyatt Earp, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” As the dog learns the game, works more independently, and responds more strongly to odor, the trained indication can be shaped and perfected and the speed will come.
Cueing: One of the most frequent handler errors I’ve observed both in training and in the trial setting is handlers who stop moving and reach into their pockets for rewards the second they see their dogs show interest in anything. This causes the dog to look up to the handler which is then often followed by “Is that it? Do you have it? Show me” and ultimately an incorrect call by the handler “Alert!” We’ve all been there, and it is admittedly a hard habit to break. As a handler, it is difficult to relinquish control and trust to our dogs when we want to help them to succeed. When training, it is very important to build the dog’s independent hunt and independent response to odor. Where safe, it can be very helpful to allow the dog to search off leash in training to develop the dog’s independence and ability to work away from us. It also allows the handler to stand back and more easily observe and take note of the dog’s natural pace and COB when working freely and when in odor. Also, rewarding the dog when the dog is focused on odor versus looking back at us will more clearly communicate to the dog that the game is about the odor. Using a marker (clicker or verbal) or throwing a toy right over the dog’s head when the dog is focused on odor allows us to reinforce the dog’s response from a distance.
Getting the trained indication: Let’s just say there are many ways to get there. Some separate out the indication behavior as a trained exercise before even introducing odor. Others shape it in over time. With a highly motivated dog, the trained indication can be introduced with odor in the very first training session. There are pros and cons with any method. That said, my suggestion is to build the dog’s drive and desire for the game, odor, and reward. Handlers and trainers simply need to convey to the dog the formula S = R = R (Stimulus/Odor = Response/Trained indication = Reward.) Making a strong connection between odor and reward increases the dog’s drive for the game. Once drive is high, the indication can be pretty easily shaped using hide placement and good timing. For example, if a dog is pawing, place the hides such that they cannot become interactive and self-rewarding and/or self-reinforcing and be sure to mark/reward before the dog starts to paw. If you want to shape a down at source, place the hide such that the dog has to reach under something with his nose to induce a down position. Once the dog starts giving the correct response, duration can be shaped into the equation.
Video: The dog in the video below learned to search in a pattern along the side of this truck based on the systematic progression of hide placements as described above. The down indication was shaped by placing the hide where the dog must reach her nose up in such a way that it induces her into a down. The reward is delivered after a verbal marker “yes” which occurs when the dog is focused on odor and also in a down position. Once she is stronger in her commitment to odor and indication, the duration of her stare and down will be required before she is rewarded. The video also shows some great COB when the dog gets into odor.
After more than 20 years of working detection with professionals, volunteers, and sport enthusiasts, I continue to observe, hone techniques, and learn. There is so much more information that can be shared but, at the risk of writing a mini novel, I will leave it at this. I hope somewhere in these observations and training tips, you can find something to help you and your dog move forward in the journey that is Nosework!
Why you need to make yourself a "hard target."
Here are some relevant FBI Crime Statistics for 2013:
- More than 1.4 million residential burglaries ~ with residents home during nearly 350,000 of those burglaries
- One murder every 37 minutes
- One rape every 6.6 minutes
Women today are accomplished, independent, and strong. We are hard working executives, professionals, adventurers, travelers, athletes, students, singles, wives, mothers, and grandmothers. Despite these strengths, however, women (and children) are still vulnerable and often the targets of violent crime. To maintain our safety, we are taught to avoid dark and deserted alleys, parking areas, hiking, and running paths. We are taught to travel in the security of groups or with men. How many times have you chosen to not go somewhere, not take a trip by yourself, or not go for a walk, hike, or run after work because you fear for your safety? What about feeling secure in our own homes? What about the security of your children when asleep in their beds or playing in their own yards?
During my 23 year career as an FBI Special Agent, I investigated some of the most violent and heinous robbers, drug lords, sexual predators, kidnappers, and serial murderers. I was involved in investigations in which children and adult women were taken from the safety of their bedrooms, plucked from their front yards, pulled from the hands of friends, and ultimately sexually abused and even murdered. In so many of these cases, I thought, "If only they had a dog, perhaps they would still be alive."
Certainly, awareness of surroundings and good judgement are first lines of defense. But, what are other options for personal safety? Mace, tasers, and/or self defense techniques can be effective, but all require close contact with the potential aggressor. A body guard may be able to keep you safe, but is costly, usually not 24/7, and infringes on your privacy. Making your home a fortress essentially makes you a prisoner. A handgun (assuming you can even access it in time AND have proper training and mental preparation) can be turned against you. Or, if you do shoot someone, are you prepared to face the mental anguish and legal aftermath of taking a life?
Personally, as a Concealed Firearms Permit instructor, Pistol instructor, someone who has years of defensive tactics training, and someone who carried a firearm 24/7 for 23 years, I feel most secure when in the company of my protection trained dogs for the following reasons:
- A dog can alert you to danger before you even realize it exists.
- A dog can function on its own allowing you the opportunity to make distance and escape the immediate threat.
- A dog can wake you during the night and scare off an intruder.
- A dog can check the security of your home, hotel room, car, or surroundings before you even enter.
- A dog can travel with you domestically and internationally to provide security where you are not permitted to have weapons in your possession.
- A dog can be ready when you are not or when you don't have time to reach or access to a weapon.
- A dog can inflict injury, impeding an aggressor's attack, without likely causing death.
- A dog can face an aggressor immediately and without hesitation or fear for its own safety.
- A dog can deter a threat just by its presence.
Perhaps most importantly, a dog can become a wonderful companion; a loyal and trusted member of your family. So, the next time you feel vulnerable, consider a personal/executive protection dog from Heimdallr K9 Services to give you security, peace, trusted and loyal companionship while also making you a "hard target."
Published in the July/August issue of
The Companion Animal Magazine
Lucky, a young Labrador Retriever, paces and whimpers along the edge of a dock over a pool. She alternates between stretching her nose and her paws, one at a time, out over the water in attempts to retrieve her toy which floats just out of reach. While splashing water out toward the toy, her person encourages, “You can get it. Go on, Lucky. Good Girl. Go get it!” Lucky’s whole body trembles with excitement. Finally, she leaps into the pool with a big splash like a bullfrog off of a lily pad. Cheers, whistles, and applause erupt from the stands full of encouraging onlookers.
The competitive sport of dock diving is a wonderful summer activity for dogs and their humans alike. Among the many organizations which host dock diving events, American Diving Dogs, Dock Dogs, and Splash Dogs hold competitions here in Utah. Each organization has a slightly different set of rules, but all share one common and most important rule: everyone must have fun.
The most popular competition event in dock diving is for distance. Other events involve the dogs jumping for maximum height to grab a “bumper object” suspended over the pool and retrieving a “bumper object” at the end of the pool for the fastest time. For the distance competition, the dog runs the length of a dock and leaps into the water. The distance of the jump is measured by a judge who is equipped with a digital stop action video camera to capture and measure the precise distance at which the base of the dog’s tail enters the water.
In order to encourage the dog to jump as far out over the water as possible, handlers use either the “chase technique” or the “place and send technique.” For the “chase technique,” the handler places the dog at the far of the dock in a “stay.” The handler then goes to the opposite end of the dock over the water. When ready, the handler releases and encourages the dog to run full speed down the dock. As the dog approaches the end of the dock, the handler throws the toy out over the water just in front of the dog’s nose. This causes the dog to maximize jumping distance by stretching out for the toy in an attempt to grab it in midair. For the “place and send technique,” the handler holds onto the dog while letting the dog see the toy being thrown out into the water. The handler then keeps the dog focused on and excited for the toy while dragging him back away from the pool end of the dock. Once they are back far enough, the dog is released to sprint down the dock and leap into the pool for the toy.
This sport awards ribbons in several distance groupings so, dogs and humans of all ages, sizes, and breeds can have success. The sport is also very welcoming to beginners and most events have beginning training sessions. There are also classes of competition for Junior Handlers and smaller dogs. If you and your dog have never participated in dock diving, the first thing to do is get your dog used to the pool. This includes teaching your dog how to safely exit the pool using a ramp. Once your dog is comfortable going into and out of the pool, it is time to take your dog up onto the dock. Sometimes, even the best swimming dogs will hesitate to jump off the dock into the pool due to the clarity or color of the water and the dog’s lack of depth perception. The height of the dock is usually about two feet above the water. Although it can take a bit of patience, the dog must jump into the pool on his or her own. The handler can only encourage but can never push or shove a dog into the water. Once your dog has successfully jumped off of the dock and into the pool a couple of times, he will gain the confidence and enthusiasm to run faster and jump farther out into the water.
If you are interested in attending a dock diving event this summer, here is a list of the some items you may need: your dog’s favorite toy which floats; a crate for when your dog is waiting his/her turn to jump; a flat collar or harness and leash (dogs must be leashed or crated when not jumping ~ no choke, pinch, or e-collars are allowed on the dock;) your dog’s current vaccination records; some form of reflective shade cloth and/or shade tent; water; portable chairs; towels for dogs and humans; a waterproof case for your cell phone/car keys/ valuables because humans have been known to get very wet and even fall into the pool during some of these events; a dry change of clothes; shoes with traction but no flip flops are allowed on the dock; sun screen; camera/video camera; and your very own cheering section. Information and rules specific to each of the dock diving organizations mentioned above can be found at www.americandivingdogs.com, www.dockdogs.com, and www.splashdogs.com.
Later in the day, Lucky bounds down the dock after her toy and springs with reckless abandon off the dock into the water. The crowd erupts with applause, oohs, and ahhhhs. The announcer reports, “That was a personal best for this little dog on her first day. A super jump of 15’9”. Way to go, Lucky!”
Note: Sonja's Rekker (pictured above) won the 2010 Splash Dogs Pro Division National Championship in Las Vegas, Nevada, with a jump of 25’.
Published in May/June issue of
The Companion Animal Magazine
“Go find!” With a short yelp, an athletic Dutch Shepherd leaps toward the muddy debris field. His paws fly over the tangled rubble with the fluidity of a panther. His now mud covered fur camouflages him against the debris ridden background. The dog works his way over the hood of a smashed pickup truck turned on its side, over the broken windshield, and onto the edge of the roof. Rising up on his hind legs, he places his front paws against a floor which now rests vertically against the truck. His nose stretches upward toward the top of the pile as if pulled by a magnet. He sniffs deeply and closes his mouth to channel the odors into his nose. His tail wags quickly. Sure of his find, the dog barks. His handler confirms her dog’s indication with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” She calls him back and throws him a tug. Everyone watching the dog knows, but his handler still has to say the words out loud. “He’s found someone.” This is the job of a Search and Rescue/Recovery (SAR) K9 team.
Without warning, on the morning of March 22, 2014, a mountain outside of Oso, Washington, let loose an avalanche of mud which cut its path without mercy or regard for the homes and lives taken with it. As of April 2, 2014, thirty people were known to have lost their lives with another fifteen still unaccounted for. What remained was approximately one square mile of tangled, compacted, devastation in the form of mud interlaced with fragmented trees, remains of nearly 50 homes, personal belongings, cars, and most importantly loved ones.
One of the most valuable tools to join in the rescue/recovery effort at Oso and other disaster sites is SAR K9s. There is no manmade tool that can match the abilities of a dog’s nose which is said to have 100,000 to 1,000,000 times more acute sense of smell than humans. These specially trained SAR K9s respond to searches of all kinds. Not only do they have amazing scenting ability, they must also have the drive, physical stamina, agility, and mental capacity to work in any environment, un-phased by the terrain, obstacles, heavy equipment, and the hundreds of people working around them. Contrary to some media reports and search dog lore, dogs do not get “depressed” when finding deceased victims. Rather, Search and Recovery K9s are specifically trained and rewarded to hunt for and locate the odor of human remains - a task presented to them as a game for which they are amply rewarded. Whether searching for live or deceased victims, these dogs will work in hazardous environments for the simple reward of a pat from their handler, a toy, or a treat. The dog’s “game” is to locate victims. Their handler’s job is to keep their K9 partners safe and get them into an area where they can catch the odor of the victims for whom they search.
Working in a mudslide environment comes complete with the usual urban disaster hazards: unstable and sharp surfaces and debris, heavy rescue excavators, dump trucks, rescue workers using chain saws and hatchets, arcing power lines, damaged gas lines and hidden propane tanks, and biohazard and household chemical hazards to name a few. In addition, odor distractions are plentiful: kitchen food, household garbage, sewage and plumbing lines, deceased pets, and well over a 100 active search workers on the pile at a given time. Unlike many other disaster situations (earthquakes, twisters, fires or hurricanes) in which structures typically collapse onto themselves, a massive mudslide pushes, stacks, and pancakes structures, cars, and trees into a high wall of mud and debris in a sort of churning washing machine effect, leaving few voids and further complicating the search effort and scent picture for the dog.
Working a search dog in any environment is as much an art as a science. Every dog has its own unique body language such as tail wagging, ears up or down, and posture. But only the experienced handler who spends 1000's of hours training, living with, and bonding with their dog can truly recognize and understand the subtleties of their dog’s body language.
The handler’s understanding of how weather and ambient air conditions effects odor also plays an important role in search work. Generally, in the evenings and mornings, air drains and flows carrying odor downward. As the sun rises and hits the earth’s surface, air flows upward due to the effects of convection. Soil density, moisture, and composition also play a part in whether or not odor is available to the dog. In a mudslide environment, human odor behaves somewhat like milk poured into a bubbling stream – flowing, dispersing, catching and pooling around rocks and other obstacles as the odor makes its way to the surface for the dogs to find.
So, the next time someone tells you, “It is just a dog,” you can know that the dog has talents that man has not yet been able to replicate. In a word, maybe that dog “Is just a hero.”
This article was published in
Best in Show Daily
NOSEWORK and NOSE WORK
A well-muscled Malinois strains against his collar, nose reaching and twitching to catch any trace of odor. His whole body quivers with excitement and anticipation as he maintains his position behind the doorway’s threshold. Finally, his handler commands, “Zoek!” He shoots through the door, sniffs a perimeter pattern around the edge of the room, bounces up and down to check seams of drawers and cabinets, and pokes his nose deep to the backsplash of countertops. His toenails click along the tile floor, changing pace, slowing down, three steps this way, two steps the other way, and back again. He brackets the target odor, puts his paws up on the counter, and lands on the floor again. His breathing changes to an irregular rapid-fire set of short staccato inhalations followed by one big exhalation huff. The dog’s tail, which wagged in rhythm with his quick trot, stiffens and flicks up over his back. His mouth closes and tenses as his nose hones in on the source location of the target odor. He locks on the seam of a cabinet with one long deep snuuuuufffff inhale breath, another exhale huff, then silence. Snapping into a quivering sit, he awaits his reward. Behind the cabinet door, 5.2 grams of cocaine.
Dating back through the ages, dogs have been valued for their scenting ability. Recent studies quantify a dog’s scenting ability as capable of detecting certain odors in a concentration of parts per trillion1. Detector dogs are currently used not only for law enforcement and military functions to find contraband, explosives, and human remains, but also to detect gas leaks, bed bugs, cancer, and even to warn of impending seizures. Until a few years ago, however, the only people who witnessed the phenomenal talents of a detector dog’s nose were the law enforcement, military, and professional handlers who worked with these dogs and the scientists who studied them.
Since 2009, however, the sport of Nose Work has brought the discipline of K9 detection into pet and K9 sport homes all across the country. Nose Work is a competitive sport in which dogs search for and indicate the presence of legal odors in varying environments and circumstances. The first K9 Nose Work trial was held in California in 2009 under NACSW™ (National Association of Canine Scent Work, LLC®) founded by Ron Gaunt, Amy Herot and Jill-Marie O'Brien. In 2012, United Nosework (UN) was established out of a partnership between Karen Shivers and Andrew Ramsey to promote the sport as a titling event with the United Kennel Club. On January 2, 2014, the United Kennel Club (UKC) announced that the UKC Dog Events Department will officially license UKC Nosework events beginning January 1, 2015. NACSW and United Nosework (UN) vary somewhat in their training methodology, trial protocols, and the number of odors used; however, both organizations have a common desire for people to share in a fun and productive activity with their dogs.
No matter under which organization one chooses to trial, the sport of Nosework is set apart from other dog sports by the diversity of handlers and dogs who successfully compete and title. Historically, competitive dog sports, whether hunting trials, agility, flyball, dock diving events, or even the protection sports, require a physically capable, athletic, and usually high energy dog. Nosework, however, provides a great option for just about any dog, large or small, bold or shy, obedient or wild. To quote the most recent UN Rulebook, “The concept of Nosework is that all handlers, regardless of physical abilities, and all dogs, regardless of physical structure, should have the opportunity to participate and experience success in Nosework.” Even deaf dogs, blind dogs, and dogs missing all or part of one limb may participate in UN Nosework trials as long as the dog does not exhibit stiffness or soreness in one or more of its remaining limbs.
NACSW requires their instructors to graduate from a challenging and specific instructor certification program. UN, on the other hand, has enlisted the talents of people who are proven in the field with real life detector dog experience as handlers, trainers, and/or evaluators. UN recognizes that most detector dog handlers/trainers have completed hundreds if not thousands of hours of structured and professional training, worked hundreds of missions in the field, and have extensive depth of knowledge and experience regarding working with detector dogs and odor behavior.
To illustrate the diversity of people drawn to Nosework with their dogs, at a recent Introduction to Nosework two-day training class held in Utah, a place where Nosework has not yet taken hold, class participants ranged dramatically from the complete novice to accomplished obedience and agility competitors and trainers. The dogs ran the gamut from a high drive German Shepherd trained in French Ringsport to a sweet lovable dog that had been rescued as a stray from a Native American Indian Reservation. A participant who attended with her service dog was excited to find a competitive sport in which she is physically able to participate; one that also provides a mind stimulating, drive building, and fun activity for her dog. Another participant reported that when traveling down the long driveway to the facility for the second day of training, her dog broke out in joyful song in anticipation of more “searching” fun. A training-class participant reported that in her excitement about this new activity, the evening after training, she set Tupperware containers throughout her living room to let her dog free search for treats. Despite the differences in personal motivations, training experience levels, their dogs’ temperaments, and natural drives, all of these participants share a genuine and complete love for their dogs and a desire to engage them in an enjoyable activity.
It is my opinion that until one has observed the talents of a dog’s nose, one cannot fully appreciate the brilliance of a dog. For this reason, we dog-sport enthusiasts need to unite, bringing an awareness of the fledgling sport of K9 Nosework to continue its momentum and growth nationwide.
1. Reference*: Walker, D.B. et al. 2006. "Naturalistic quantification of canine olfactory sensibility." Applied Animal Behaviour Science 97: 241-254.